Today the Senate Foreign Relations Committee held its first official hearing on New START with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen.
There were strong positives for the treaty. The three witnesses presented a robust defense of New START and provided very credible responses to some of the major criticisms of the treaty.
At the same time, the critics keep raising the same issues and even invented some new ones.
=Senators Kerry (D-MA) and Lugar (R-IN) remain strongly supportive of the treaty and are helping move it through the legislative process.
=Both Clinton and Gates made the common sense argument that the United States is better off with the treaty than without it and listed a number of advantages of having the treaty in effect, including enhanced strategic stability and greater visibility into what Russia is doing with its strategic nuclear weapons.
=Mullen sought to address concerns that the treaty would hurt U.S. national security by noting that the U.S. will still retain a nuclear triad of missile and bombers in sufficient diversity and capability to deter other nuclear states and maintain strategic stability with the Russians.
=The endorsement of New START by former Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger before this committee two weeks ago was key to demonstrating early support from the Republican establishment and he was cited several times during the hearing.
=The witnesses referred to the agreement between the U.S. and Russia (and China) announced at the hearing on an Iran sanctions resolution as evidence that the cooperation between the U.S. and Russia is paying off.
=Kerry provided a good response to a DeMint (R-SC) request for the New START negotiating record by reading from language agreed to by the Foreign Relations Committee at the time of the Intermediate Nuclear Forces in Europe treaty that it is not advisable to send the full negotiating record to Congress because it would damage diplomacy and inhibit candor.
=Gates replied forcefully and passionately (as passionate as the even-keeled Secretary of Defense gets) to GOP charges that the treaty inhibits missile defense by saying that the U.S. has a comprehensive missile defense program that is going forward notwithstanding what the Russians are saying and that Russian opposition to U.S. missile defense plans has existed for 40 years. The U.S. can afford missile defense and the Russians cannot, so the Russians try to stop our program by political means. But, said Gates, the U.S. is putting its money where its mouth is on missile defense, and will request even more funding for missile defense in next year’s budget (I would stand up and cheer if I didn’t think the program was an incredible waste of money).
=Gates noted that while the number of Russian delivery vehicles is already below the number specified in the treaty, the number of warheads is actually above the limit in the treaty, so they will be reducing the number of warheads. Mullen noted the overall importance of limiting the number of nuclear weapons that exist, regardless of who might have a few more or a few less, and the importance of cooperating in doing so.
=Gates also responded well to the new issue raised that there are only 18 inspections permitted under this treaty compared to 28 under START I. Gates explained that New START uses a streamlined formula for inspections, so for all practical purposes there are the same number of inspections under New START as there were under START I. Isakson said this should be put into a memo that an 8th grader could understand (and he is right). Clinton added that the number of facilities is much smaller due to the removal of facilities in post-Soviet states, and that proportionally speaking 18 offers an increased number of inspections.
=And Gates similarly responded to the question about the modernization of the U.S. nuclear weapons complex by saying that he has been trying for three and a half years to obtain funding for modernization efforts and the nuclear infrastructure, and that now is the first time he might receive it. And ironically, he said, it’s in connection with an arms control agreement. Gates finished his response by noting the NNSA administrator Tom D’Agostino has already testified that the resources in the President’s budget are exactly what’s needed to get the job done.
=Mullen urged for timely ratification of the treaty, noting that 6 months without a treaty means 6 months without any verification, which is dangerous.
=Sen. Risch (R-ID) endorsed the treaty when he said “It’s a good thing to have to treaty,” but then went on to complain about missile defense restrictions.
=Democrats on the committee plus Lugar were helpful in drawing out positive points for the treaty.
But, but . . .
As many times as good responses are supplied to criticisms, the same points get raised over and over (clearly my write-up of the Schlesinger responses either was not convincing or no one read it).
For example, Senator Corker (R-TN) listed a series of criticisms that other GOP Senators kept reiterating:
=The treaty limits U.S. missile defense.
=U.S. and Russia should have come to a common understanding on missile defense before signing the treaty.
=The Russians are already below the New START limits and only the U.S. will have to make cuts.
=Russian tactical nuclear weapons are not covered.
=It is not clear how violations of the treaty will be dealt with.
=The modernization funding for the U.S. nuclear complex is not sufficient.
Near the end of the hearing, DeMint went over the wall when he questioned why the U.S. and the Russians should have nuclear parity (after all, 31 or so countries depend on the U.S. nuclear deterrent) and advocated building a missile defense that would protect the U.S. against all missiles, including Russian nuclear forces (an issue settled four decades ago because, as Gates pointed out, it would be enormously destabilizing and enormously expensive). Gates also noted that U.S. missile defense programs under both the George W. Bush administration and the Obama administration have been focused on the threat from rogue states such as North Korea and Iran – not Russia.
In all, it was a useful hearing with great witnesses, but the Republican critics have yet to be convinced. But they also have yet to oppose the treaty.